Pink, red ribbons tie us to our causes

March 15, 1993|By Mary Gottschalk | Mary Gottschalk,Knight-Ridder News Service

Breast cancer is joining AIDS as a marketing tool.

Since the red ribbon became a symbol of AIDS awareness two years ago, an increasing number of items have been decorated with its image: T-shirts, dinner plates, Christmas ornaments and jeweled pins. In almost each instance, manufacturer and retailer have pledged "a portion of the proceeds" from sales to fight AIDS.

Now that the pink ribbon is becoming a recognizable symbol of breast cancer awareness, it's starting to appear on products as well. They're not as ubiquitous as red ribbons yet, but they're doing OK since they only started seeping into the national consciousness during National Breast Cancer Awareness month last October.

Tiffany & Co. is now promoting a $100 gift set that includes 3.7 ounces of its namesake fragrance and a silk Jacquard scarf with a pink ribbon print saluting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. In mid-April, Macy's and I. Magnin plan to start selling pink ribbon jewelry pins. Both stores are already selling enamel red ribbon pins.

Is the selling of a symbol such as the red or pink ribbon ethical?

"It's not at all exploitative," says Joann Schellenbach, national media relations director for the American Cancer Society. "What we hear from women is that they want an opportunity to personally support the fight against breast cancer. It's something they want to do."

The Cancer Society doesn't promote pins or emphasize one cancer over another, says Ms. Schellenbach, but she says she understands the appeal of the pink ribbon pin. "It makes a statement," she says, giving the person wearing it an opportunity to explain its significance and talk about the problem of breast cancer.

Patrick J. O'Connell, the designer who created the red ribbon for the New York organization Visual AIDS, takes a less lenient view. "It's a complicated issue. My worry about the merchandising of the Ribbon Project is a fear that its complete commercialization will make it banal and render it meaningless," he says.

Visual AIDS, the non-profit coalition of artists and art professionals behind the Ribbon Project, has not "participated in any of the financial windfall of the merchandising of the red ribbon imagery," Mr. O'Connell says. "We've offered it as conceptual artwork to the public to tap into a wellspring of compassion, but the Christmas ornaments, the plates, the expensive and less expensive pins aren't benefiting the project. In many instances a portion is benefiting worthy causes, but it appears manufacturers and retailers are reaping a financial benefit and that's obscene."

Susan Gearey, vice president and manager of the San Francisco Tiffany store, disagrees. "We've only had extremely positive results. I haven't heard one negative," she says of the scarf, which also portrays Tiffany "Dancing T's," and the stylized runner used to promote the Komen Foundation's annual "Race for the Cure" fund-raisers.

"People have read about it . . .and they are just thrilled. They think it's wonderful," Ms. Gearey says.

"We hope the money that goes for the research will, in our lifetime, find a cure. A lot of us have been stricken with breast cancer, and I feel strongly it's a great way for us to show support for a woman's issue," she says.

Tiffany has pledged 10 percent of the sale proceeds of the gift set as part of its goal of raising $100,000 in 1993 for the Komen Foundation. The limited-edition set is on sale through March at Tiffany stores, at Tiffany fragrance counters in selected specialty stores and via (800) 526-0649.

The pink ribbon pins expected to go on sale around that time are clones of the red ribbon pins designer James Arpad created a year ago to raise money for the Design Industry Foundation for AIDS.

The woman behind the pink ribbon pins is Maryesta Carr, a New York sales representative of jewelry and accessories designers and manufacturers. Ms. Carr has lost two sisters to breast cancer, and when one of her clients noticed her wearing a pink ribbon, she offered to make up a permanent version.

Ms. Carr was soon wearing the pin created by the My! Jane Flowers firm and passing them out to friends. When people started asking where they could buy the pins, Ms. Carr and My! Jane Flowers decided to start large-scale production. Ms. Carr says she is donating 15 percent of the wholesale cost of each pin to the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research, where she has set up a memorial fund for her two sisters.

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